Romantic subplots in fantasy and sci-fi

Most genre fiction novels have romantic subplots. That’s an unwritten rule. The rare exceptions usually fall into the category of hard or military sci-fi. But even the toughest of those occasionally push a romance into the mixture of strategy and science. The Foundation series doesn’t do a great job at it. The Honorverse is a little better. Honor Harrington gets obligatory love interests, while leading her people into battle and saving the Manticore for the Xth time. For the most part, her relationships are not annoying, although the story would have still progressed without them. Why are these romantic plotlines there? Because most individuals romance someone at one point or another. So do most characters in fiction.

While romantic subplots can add a great deal to the story, they can diminish its impact as well. The more sci-fi and fantasy I read, the more I realize that not every genre fiction novel needs a romantic subplot. In some cases, these storylines do nothing, but take up space without adding value.

You’ve got a fantasy romance for me? Just add a unicorn. Unicorns often make it better. And sometimes not.

Hijacking the story. Some romantic subplots demonstrate a unique ability to break the immersion. I may be not the greatest specialist on the Kingkiller Chronicles out there, but even I see the issue with the main romantic subplot that drags on and on without any apparent reason. The main character’s love interest appears out of nowhere, impresses him (sings, smiles, says something mysterious) and then vanishes without a trace. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Nothing happens between Kvothe and Denna, although things do happen to them. Their relationship is too chaste to become a true masochism tango and too overwrought to reflect the struggles of teenagers, who lack power and influence. Why can’t they be together? They neither support opposing sides in a war, nor are tied by politics, obligations, or loyalties (again, both are simply too young and unimportant for any of that).  So, what is the problem with them getting together? Ah, well, there’s the mysterious past, of course. Only it’s laughable in the case of two teenage orphans. This romance might have worked had the two been older and/or carried political weight or responsibilities on their shoulders. Instead, they don’t even have jobs (Ok, Kvothe has a scholarship and Denna acquires some powerful sponsor, but that’s the limit of it).

The Kvothe-Denna relationship only distracts you from the story. There’s no problem with the characters themselves. It’s just that their ‘love’ is contrived. Because two teenage hobo-tricksters without political affiliations and a heavy baggage from the past cannot behave like Geralt and Yennefer from the Witcher. Again, all that mess may be somehow salvaged and justified in the last instalment, but I tremble, imagining how many pages that might take. After two books roughly the size of Sienkiewicz’s Trilogy we still haven’t seen any kings killed. And the series is titled the Kingkiller Chronicles.

Sometimes you don’t need to add an elephant to your sci-fi. Even though elephants are cool.

Invisible romances. Another strange type of fantasy/sci-fi romances is what I call the ‘invisible romance’. It’s there because our characters must have relationships, but none of their infatuation is properly shown. Oftentimes, this lack of …well…romance in a romantic subplot throws you out of the book’s world. In Brandon Sanderson’s Elantris this is the case with all the characters, who barely ever kiss. Yet, they are supposed to be passionately in love. The main couple Raoden-Sarene are both exemplary chaste before their eventual wedding (and both are older than twenty-five). The same is true for everyone else.

Not everyone writes Kushiel’s legacy and Silk and Steel. I get that. It’s definitely a choice not to include erotic scenes and/or problematic content into your story. Only all that lust and passion needs to appear in one way or another, if that’s the direction that your story is taking. Love can be platonic. Sure. In the case of ‘invisible romances’, however, it’s not. It’s just not there for some reason.

Send your message! I never thought that Raistlin Majere needed a relationship in Dragonlance. He was pulled into one, nonetheless. Because the authors had to deliver a message about selfishness and selflessness.

The same way, most love stories about someone choosing the good guy/girl over the dark and edgy guy/girl tend to be there to deliver the message rather than to enrich the plot. Also, I cannot name a single story (except for the Witcher series, of course), where the dark and edgy is the right choice. These are not romantic subplots but rather messages hammered into your head that reflect none of the complexities of life. I understand the fear of writing problematic and abusive relationships without passing a judgement. After all, there’s a fine line between an abusive relationship and a weird or unconventional relationship.

Not all relationships adhere to our modern standards of appropriate and healthy. In certain cases, what may seem the sickest kind of relationship to someone, is the best those two can pull off. Especially if the participants are masochism tango champions. After all, you can’t expect two eccentric and driven people to have a perfectly calm relationship. There are no right or wrong romances. There are some that work and others that don’t. Two necromances will die happily ever after, and you can’t really make their love conventional.

The dark and edgy is the right choice! If you can handle it.

Despite the popular belief, the omission of romance does not kill a novel. On the contrary, the lack of official couples opens new possibilities for many fans. Yep, you can ship whoever you want. You want those two crazy warlords to be together? Who knows, maybe they are. Unless otherwise proven, you can assume they are into each other.

If that’s how your romantic hero/heroine looks like, I want to read that story.

Less room to screw it up. Have you ever hated an ending because you couldn’t stand the forced romance? If there is no apparent romantic line (square, triangle or whatever), you won’t get that pain in your brain. No disappointments ensure. Your beloved hero will not end with that idiot of a partner defying all logic.

Romance as a genre does not suffer from the issues listed above because of its’ primary focus on the love between characters rather than politics/war/intrigue/technology. Pure romance novels simply have more space to develop the romance. It’s difficult to keep the balance, when a love story is a subplot. Sometimes, it’s not even necessary. After all, it’s better not to have a romantic subplot that to spoil the story.

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